Leap in artistic freedom of expression
While the Addis Ababa art scene is scattered around the city, Guramayne Art Center can be proposed to be one of the two centers for art making and viewing (the other being the Alle School of Art and Design). Placed above the New Art Space Studio that has housed three of the most prolific artists for nearly two decades, the area attracts emerging and established artists as well as art students eager to discuss art and create new works.
The curator of Guramayne Art Center Mifta Zeleke has given a great deal of time and dedication to developing art in the city, giving support and curatorial assistance to many artists over the years.
Mifta has gathered heavy hitters of the Ethiopian contemporary art scene for Negari: Manifesto group exhibition.
Seven artists explore the cyclical intermingling of the social, cultural and political spheres and their effect on the state of the country. The artists pressed their ears to the pulse of the nation, studied current affairs and put them in the context of history, creating timely and challenging works. Discussions of current events and the political atmosphere in Ethiopia led to the conception of this exhibition. The artists are Dariwos Hailemichael, Demissie Gurmu, Kirubel Melke, Surafel Amare, Robel Temesgen, Yero Adugna and Tamrat Gezahegne.
The opening sentences of the manifesto prepared by Mifta proclaim: “making efforts to foresee the future is to create a chance to realize the present at hand and look back to the past. To do so through the arts is mainly to deal with the state of the world, not only about the state of the arts. Accordingly, this Negari: Manifesto emphasizes on the essence of paying attention to astute manifestations as we stand on a critical period in forming the future.”
Yero Adugna’s Our Time, a photograph and video installation placed at the veranda of the gallery, first greet the viewer. Yero is a Berlin based photographer. The photograph shows the interior of a bus with a smashed window. Strong wind blowing through the shattered window covers one of the bus’s blue seats. A beautifully verdant landscape can be seen outside. Small cracks along the window can be seen. One can only assume this untitled piece depicts the aftermaths of a protest following recent political unrest. It’s a sharp intake of breath, preparing the viewer for what is to come inside the gallery walls.
Tamrat Gezahegn’s Am I: Is he/she: Where is being? characteristically speaks volumes while employing simplistic methods. A magnifying glass, sefed, one small and another large sifter, scales, weight measures from a single gram to 2 kilograms, a mirror, a microscope and a globe hang on the wall. Their composition is striking at first glance. On the adjoining wall is a handwritten poetic manifesto by the artist.
The installation is an exploration of identity politics. The arbitrariness of belonging to these artificial boxes and then continuing to stubbornly adhere to them is questioned. Tamrat’s argument is that identifying by clan, ethnic group, profession, religion or any other grouping used by people is a limitation on that person. Tamrat asks if that person can encompass all that the specific group stands for. He questions separatists if they know the cultures, traditions, language and other constitute parts of their chosen identity? The question is not just limited to one ethnic group. It also challenges the unity camp–do you know Ethiopia well enough to identify with it?
This installation applies to the current ethnic tension in Ethiopia but may also work for global politics. Tamrat’s works have always had strong political standings. His previous solo exhibition Waiting for the Wind +/- at Lela Gallery explored the global power dynamics and economic inequality between the urban elite and indigenous rural communities.
This installation piece is a call to reason. “The journey encompasses love, forgiveness, mercy, unity, peace, respect, serenity; a life of unity, birth of unity; death of unity, resurrection of unity that bestows us an enlightened eternity.
One of the gallery’s small inner rooms is covered with floor-length posters depicting a scene from the Arat Kilo area where job seekers and other youth reading newspapers. In the room is a single newspaper on a table and a chair. Addis Newspaper is a satirical socio-political newspaper Robel Temesgen has been working on for many years. It is a handwritten compilation of real events that took place in the country presented in a humorous or sarcastic manner. It is the first time the Addis Newspaper project has been on display in Ethiopia. This particular issue took 5 months to complete with news ranging from the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn in February to the Ethio-Eritrean peace agreement in July.
Addis Newspaper captures the fast paced and quick changing political atmosphere of the country. Robel had gathered information from mainstream media outlets and social media, painstakingly illustrating, designing and writing each news item by hand. The first installments of the paper began as a form of protest to the suppression and persecution of private news sources and government imposed (and public reinforced) censorship.
Increasingly short news cycles limit the public’s attention and concern for the issues that make the news. Information that is quickly out of date no longer incites a sense of urgency that can lead to action or reaction. Addis Newspaper puts both the value of information and freedom of the Press into question. The ever-shifting tide of public opinion, especially as seen on social media and other public spaces, also plays a central role in this piece.
Robel hopes to duplicate this issue and circulate it in the Arat Kilo area in the coming months. The performance of this piece, especially in the public scene and mass consumption of information should be interesting to see.
Another prominently displayed piece is Darios Hailemichael’s Untitled. 362 yellow paper flower-like tubes are pasted onto a black plastic tarp that covers an entire wall. His manifesto is titled “what is the value of a human life?”
Darios operates on the theory that significant social and political changes require large human sacrifices. The installation represents the thousands of deaths in the widespread protests across the country in the past three years. These dead youths have become stripped of any identity; their death has simply become statistics, numbing those in power and the ones being governed. The yellow paper constructions resemble flowers usually put onto coffins.
Dario is questioning where people stand? Has change come? Is it enough to make the sacrifices of thousands worthwhile?
By the right entrance of the gallery is Surafel Amare’s untitled installation piece. Oxen skulls, rocks, soil and mattress textile, readymade and found objects are reminders that all life eventually ends, despite the political noise between birth and death. An ox-drawn farming implement encased in the uniquely patterned yellow, orange and green mattress fabric hangs above two ox skulls. On the ground below are assortments of different sized rocks, some covered in the same fabric, all lying in brown soil. The production feels at once grim and whimsical.
“I wonder how the fate of those who passed away and those who are yet to come remains to be the same,” says his statement.
All pieces in this exhibition confront the viewer with uncomfortable truths. One such piece is Kirubel Melke’s The Second Death. Created in his signature textile construction style, Kirubel’s piece challenges the concept of modernity.
The blind acceptance and application of ideas have put the progress of the country in jeopardy. In this meticulously stitched piece human figures are huddled on a raised platform set against the green and yellow corrugated iron sheet walls of the city. The figures are approaching the edge, ropes connected to a rod above them and hanging around their necks. One figure in a black gown and graduation cap has already leapt or been pushed from the stage. The platform calls the Martyr’s Memorial at Sidist Kilo to mind.
The sight is one worth beholding and the evident care and attention to detail Kirubel has put into his two pieces in the exhibition are worth multiple visits. The beautiful stitching might consume all the viewers’ attention at first. The different textures and colors of the textile are also quiet fascinating. After taking a few steps backwards and getting a full view of the scene presented, Kirubel’s works are marvelous.
Negari: Manifesto can be taken as significant sign of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. The artists presented works that call for caution along the treacherous road to democracy. It puts the future into question. It asks for more in-depth discussions on these issues. Negari: Manifesto is clear sign of the crucial role the arts play in social and political discourse.